Each Sunday, I close my Sunday Lesson with, “By way of explanation, I label myself as an agnostic Christian. I attend a Southern Baptist church and am comfortable with Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology and all kinds of Protestant thought.”
As such, and to oil the brain from different roadside views, I subscribe to a few newsletters. One is Crisis Magazine, a well-written polemic from a bunch of cranky, unashamed conservative Catholics. I like it because, as I often tell my wife, “when people get mad, they finally tell the truth.” [NB: This is not THE Crisis Magazine, the flagship publication of the NAACP, also a fine read.]
Among other writerly things, the editors at Crisis are good at headlines, and this one hooked me: Bill Gates and Ersatz Virtue. I don’t know Gates and have never met him. But, I am from Seattle, share Microsoft Windows with Linux, and my wife designed Gates’ neighbor’s driveway who made the simple request that he wanted nothing more than ‘to be able to drive my Ferrari from the road to my garage at 30 mph.’ Sometimes I wonder if my twenty-year-old truck will even do 30mph…
Is Virtue For Sale?
The article, written by William Smith, (who also authored “Democrats Are The New Know-Nothings) leads by asking, “In this day and age, what does it mean to be a virtuous person?” I can answer that easily and won’t charge the journal a thing: in this day and age, a virtuous person is a person who does the right thing. Smith, of course, is cranky about the right thing which used to be set in stone but flounders, now, in modern parlance, meaning almost anything, and therein lies the rub.
He aims with both barrels loaded, and bystanders should cover their heads. He asserts without argument that Gates is ruthless, cruel, ‘less than gentlemanly with women’, and hangs with pedophiles. It’s no surprise, then, that Smith joins others in shaming Gates as a wealthy schmuck, hiding a fetid morality behind a museum quality tapestry of feeding people and giving away medical supplies. It’s this feeding and giving away that confuses me about Smith’s argument: Gates, he says, gives to the downtrodden, especially to those far away, and the farther away, the better. Does Crisis Magazine, and, by extension, the Catholic Church, argue that doing good for those far away is a false virtue? I’m missing something here. This accusation – buying public virtue with ill-gotten gain – has been made before, and, for that, Smith is in good company. Apparently, in the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago, when religious leaders donated to the needy, they announced the good deed with a Mariachi band. Jesus warned that these leaders received their reward – the adulation of people hearing trumpets – but no more. But, still, people ate.
What About Next Door?
Smith’s pedestrian complaint is that the Gates Foundation gives to people far away instead of near to them, favoring the lofty praise of giving rather than the dirty job of doing. I have an idea of why they focus on large issues far away rather than the addict next door who can’t pay his rent. I expect Smith would, too, if he thought more about it.
They might go unused, but if you live in the US, there are a lot of programs for you and your neighbor. There is food and clothing and transportation and diapers for anyone in need. Even cell phones are available, I’m told. I know some of this from personal experience: I was there once, with twin babies and a mortgage, and little to pay for any of it. The housing crunch fell on me like Dorothy’s farmhouse on the witch, and I was at my wits end. My wife snuck off to the state offices one night, tail between her legs, returning with a stack of food stamps, happy that we could feed the girls but saddened about our inability to do it without help. “Doing it ourselves” is the American gold standard, and we didn’t measure up. We used the stamps while we needed them, and I am happy that state monies are used for these concerns. Not everyone plays fair, but, well, that’s a conversation I don’t want to have with Catholic church officials.
If they’re not next door, who are ‘people far away?’ I admit to not knowing much about what the Gates Foundation does in Belgium or Japan and my sense from the little research I’ve done is that most of the millions of dollars they give go to places where no one is giving, where there is little infrastructure, and where there are few doctors or medicines or bowls of rice. Seattle – or anywhere in the US – is different a different animal altogether. (And, I learned from a brief scan of the Foundation’s site, they do give quite a lot of dough in the US.)
Smith continues, reporting that the Gates Foundation is ‘committed to tackling the greatest inequities of the world.’ I’m confused again and can’t, for the life of me, figure out why Smith and Crisis Magazine smirk at this goal. Smith helps little when he sums Gates and current culture: “the true understanding of virtue is gone; all the remains if the ersatz virtue of the sentimental humanitarian.” In other words, giving away money to make yourself feel good is fake virtue. I bet the kids who ask for ‘more, please,’ don’t agree.
We laugh at how long Internet essays take to get ’round to Hitler, and for Smith, it’s a few paragraphs. Right away, he compares ‘sentimental humanitarianism’ to communism and National Socialism. He doesn’t say it, but the trick apparently is in being sentimental about the giving. Emotional. So his rule applies to both me and to my hometown billionaire: I am sentimental about giving, too, wishing that the world were more equitable and sure that it isn’t. And, instead of innuendo, I wish Smith would make a firm argument that giving is only virtuous when it makes us feel bad.
I agree with Smith here, and I bet the Gates do too: humanitarianism has gone awry, and history tells the truth of it. But – maybe we are using different words – I find nothing in the catechism or the gospels that is suspicious about means to uplift children and the downtrodden in any way. Even in the story above, where Jesus castigates leaders who give, He never says anything untoward about the poor and needy being helped. I’m sure Smith agrees. Who wouldn’t?
Smith and I agree on other points, too. As a Christian, I believe that absolution, virtue, a sense of what is right, and forgiveness come from our Savior, freely, by His own sacrifice, and not from what we do to mask the stink of our sin. As stated, I don’t know Gates, and don’t imagine I know what motivates his largess. His wife says that a driving force of their Foundation is her Catholic upbringing and her firm belief that that “all lives have equal value.” Smith writes that Gates’ ‘virtue’ is a vile thing, but I lean toward believing the man: he’s been given much and feels compelled now to give back.
Smith closes by stating that ‘one cannot simply condemn all philanthropists as masking their loathsomeness by embracing humanitarianism…” but, in fact, he does a pretty good job at it. He argues that virtue – doing right – must align with self. I don’t know exactly what he means here, except that, in the case of Crisis Magazine, all virtue begins with the Catholic faith. Maybe Smith knows Gates, and can comment on his character, but Gates strikes me as a man acting like he’s seen something. Instead of worrying – at least publicity – about how fast he can drive a Ferrari down his driveway – Gates wonders what he can do for good with his money. If the proof is in the pudding, I’m eating with Bill and Melinda.
To sum up, I know what Smith is saying, but I don’t know either of the Gates so have no basis of knowing if he’s right. If Smith believes that Gates feeds children in trade for brownie points, Smith trades in the same currency, criticizing philanthropists for points. What I do know is this: children are being fed, and people receive health care. For that, I am, happy.
John answered Him, “Teacher, we saw one who does not follow us casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.”
But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him, for no one who does a miracle in My name can quickly speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.”
What do you think? Is virtue only possible when the deed aligns with an inner consecration? Can charity be piecemealed into categories? Can a person with questionable history turn toward good? Does saving the lives of thousands make you a better person? What does it mean to be a better person?
Interesting from Crossway: What Does it Mean to be Your True Self?
Another interesting read: The Problem With Authenticity, by Emma Scrivener at the Gospel Coalition